In 1986, Watchmen came out, and it changed comic books forever.
I'm not the first to have to resort to such grandiose claims to describe Watchmen, and I won't be the last—largely because whatever acclaim one throws at the book, it still doesn't seem to do it justice. Twenty-two years after its debut, writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons' postmodern superhero epic remains utterly awe-inspiring in its craft, relevance, and influence.
In March, 300 director Zack Snyder will bring a long-awaited adaptation of the 12-issue series to movie theaters—and whether the film ends up embodying or crushing the dreams of millions of geeks, it has already introduced the book to an entirely new audience: the mainstream. In previous years, the collected edition of Watchmen sold about 100,000 copies a year; when the trailer for the film premiered in front of The Dark Knight in July, DC Comics had to print an additional 900,000 copies to meet demand. In August, DC's president and publisher, Paul Levitz, told the New York Times that this year will likely see a print run of over a million copies.
Watchmen—which is set in an alternate 1985, where Nixon is still president and once-beloved superheroes have become scorned has-beens—begins with a superhero's murder before spiraling inward and outward, growing ever more complex, gripping, and moving. As a less-than-perfectly-sane vigilante, Rorschach, investigates the murder, Moore and Gibbons introduce us to unforgettable events and unforgettable characters, from retired, impotent crimefighter Dan Dreiberg to the distressingly amoral, unfathomably powerful superhuman Dr. Manhattan.
"All in all, I drew and lettered some 336 pages of interior art, a dozen covers, assorted text illustrations, and a couple dozen other bits and pieces for magazines, ads, and so on," Gibbons writes in his new book, Watching the Watchmen, a gorgeous hardcover that collects much of Gibbons' legendary Watchmen work—and along the way chronicles the book's creation, from Gibbons' first collaborations with Moore in British anthology 2000 AD to the crappy merch inspired by Watchmen's success. (Watchmen wristwatch, anyone?) It's all here, from Gibbons' character designs and page layouts, to snippets from Moore's hyper-detailed scripts, to sketches doodled one morning by Moore and Gibbons, sitting "side-by-side on a sofa writing and drawing on the same piece of paper."
"I went through my drawer where I just stuffed everything when I was doing the book," Gibbons says, speaking from London. "I've got several filing cabinets full of all kinds of junk. But all the Watchmen stuff—because it was such an elaborate undertaking when we did it, and I had to constantly refer back to what I'd done in the previous issue or 10 issues or something—I kept everything quite carefully just for those purposes.... I knew I had the thumbnails and the script, but there were things that anybody in their right mind would've just thrown away. But I was quite surprised myself at what I had kept all those years, and I'm kind of pleased I did. They used to say something like, 'You should keep a diary, and one day your diary will keep you,' but I suppose it's more like, 'You should keep all your old junk, and if you're lucky one day your old junk will keep you!'"
That "old junk"—and Gibbons' commentary on it—provides an insightful behind-the-scenes look at Gibbons' and Moore's creative process.
"There is a thing with artists and their artwork that right after you've done it, it's a little bit raw, and you feel kind of sensitive about it," Gibbons says. "But it's been so long since I did this stuff I can just look upon it as if I'm someone else. But certainly what does come back from those days, and what was evident was the enjoyment that we had doing it. Alan and [colorist] John Higgins and myself [were] off in a little bubble in England, really being completely left alone by DC just to do our pet project, so there's a wonderful sort of enthusiasm there, and the fact that we'd worked in the field long enough to know exactly what we were doing but not long enough to get tired. One of the reasons I wanted to do the book was, with the hype about the movie, to show people where it all came from, and show how we first did it. These amazing images that I see today projected on a huge screen, they just started as little scribbles on scraps of paper."
As for what those scribbles have evolved into, Gibbons seems satisfied with not only the film—for which he was an advisor—but also its effect on the book. "I'm obviously pleased about that because it gets people reading the book, which was how Alan and I originally conceived it, how it was designed to be seen in its purest form," Gibbons says. "And hopefully it will get people reading other books of Alan's and mine and comics in general. To me, that's a wonderful kind of spin-off of it."
For the complete Q&A with Dave Gibbons—including more on Gibbons' involvement with the film, and his reactions to Watchmen's continued success—click here.